Ashley Esarey was surprised at what he saw when he logged into SinaWeibo, China ‘s most popular microblogging site. He happened to be inBeijing in March when news of Bo Xilai ‘s ouster from his post as Communist Party secretary ofChongqing was made public . "I was just amazed at the amount of support there was for BoXilai immediately after the announcement," Esarey, anassociate in research at Harvard's Fairbank Center forChinese Studies, says. "It was really free, with all kinds ofvoices supporting him with various homonyms to mask theircriticisms of state policy." It doesn't look like a coincidence that now less thanthree months later, during which rumors of a presidential coup alsospread through the site that Sina Weibo is implementing a"user credit system." ( MORE: Political Rumors Spur Online Crackdown in China ) According to a translation from the Wall Street Journal , its "purpose is to purify the Weibo environment andsafeguard good order on Weibo by relying on the reports of numeroususers to effectively reduce untrue information, invasions ofprivacy, personal attacks, plagiarized content, the assuming ofothers identities and harassment of others." The problem, of course, lies with the Chinese government'sinterpretation of "untrue information." Under the newsystem, users will be docked points for violations and awardedpoints for reporting people who break the rules. People who earnlow enough scores risk penalties, including losing the ability topost on microblogs or gain new followers. |
Why would Sina Weibo risk angering its 280 million users? It allcomes back to Bo Xilai. In April, after the Internet in China wasablaze with pro-Bo Xilai sentiment and various rumors, commentingon Sina Weibo and Tencent (another popular microblogging site) was disabled for three days . That put Sina Weibo in an uncomfortable position. One one hand, asthe country's largest microblogging site, it faces morescrutiny from the government than other sites. On the other hand,it became popular in the first place precisely because users canengage in passionate discussions about issues they care about.
It's a fine line court too little controversy and yourpageviews will go down, court too much and the government willcrack down on you. Microbloggers in China face censorship, but compared to traditionalprint and broadcast media outlets, they are relatively free toexpress themselves — often anonymously (this despite anunenforced decree in March that all microbloggers must registerwith their real identities). This, in Esarey's opinion, is why Sina Weibo decided to testout the new points system. "I think they were under a lot ofpressure and were hoping to come up with some kind of compromisebetween a real hardline censorship approach and a new system thatwould give users incentives to produce the kind of content that theregime would like to see." In the end, it could end up hurting both Sina Weibo and Beijing.There's no guarantee that users won't quit Sina Weiboand flock to Tencent and other sites — or drop microbloggingaltogether. That's not to mention that Sina Weibo faces theHerculean task of implementing and maintaining such a complexpoints system across a network of 280 million people.
As for China's Communist Party, this fall is a politicallysensitive time, with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabaon both stepping down. Perceived pressure onSina Weibo and other microblogging sites which, for the mostpart, are home to pretty innocuous conversation couldpotentially backfire. "I think this is going to lead to a politicization of themedium that didn t exist before these attempts to ratchet upcontrol," says Esarey. "People aren t going to losethe will to express themselves online.
It could potentiallyradicalize people who weren t radicalized before." ( MORE: In China, Google Offers a New Tool to Detect Sensitive Words ).
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